Thursday, March 22, 2007

Raising and Napping the Racers

A gigantic pigeon coop in southern Taiwan

Though aloft on turf or perch or poor low stage,

Both sing sometímes the sweetest, sweetest spells,
Yet both droop deadly sómetimes in their cells
Or wring their barriers in bursts of fear or rage.

One of Taiwan's most ubiquitous sights is that of the pigeon coop that sits atop many a home and factory. Each one is a glimpse of a world foreigners seldom see: pigeon racing in Taiwan. Today the China Post reported on the successful police action against a pigeon-napping ring:

Agents of the Criminal Investigation Bureau identified Lu Kuo-sheng, 43, of Kaohsiung, as the head of the "pigeon-napping" ring, that had extorted at least NT$5 million from over 500 owners over the past five months.

They identified the two women suspects as Shih Wei-ya, 28, and Weng Hsiu-ching, 32, both of Tainan.

The other suspects, arrested in Pingtung, were Piao Chin-cheng, 43; Pan Chien-cheng, 38; Chen Chien-liang, 49; Lin Hsun-ti, 50; and Chen Seng-yu, 33.

Lu had his ring members set up net traps in hills in the two southern Taiwan counties to catch racing pigeons, whose leg rings helped them to track down the owners.

Ransoms, ranging from NT$5,000 to NT$50,000, were demanded. When owners refused to pay, the pigeon-nappers would kill the birds and eat them up, CIB agents said.

Pigeon kidnapping is very common in Taiwan, where pigeon racing is a national passion. This excellent article by Brent Hannon explains why gangsters might be attracted to the sport:

When the Japanese introduced pigeon racing to Taiwan early last century, they probably had no idea what an impression it would make. This curious combination of sport, gambling, and animal husbandry was an instant hit - it seized the hearts and minds of the people in Taiwan, and it never let go.

The pigeons eat birdseed and grit, but the racing itself is fueled by cash. “Money is what makes pigeon racing so popular,” says Tsai Tung-bao, president of the Chinese Taipei Racing Pigeon Association. “If you get lucky, you can make a lot of money, and that’s why Taiwanese are so crazy about pigeon races.”

The stakes are the highest in the world: prize money for Taiwan’s biggest races can reach US$3 million, and any bird that does well in a seven-race season is automatically worth more than US$20,000. The sport also has a Confucian ethic: some pigeon pedigrees are longer than the sage’s beard. More than 30,000 Taiwanese race pigeons, and another 50,000 are involved in raising or training the birds.

A man, barely visible behind the coop on the right, trains his pigeons to fly to the sound of his clap.

Hannon goes on to narrate how the races work:

As Cheng notes, pigeons are measured by a simple yardstick: race results. It’s a strict meritocracy. The birds all start at the same level, and as fledglings they are treated like kings, well fed and carefully tended. They are given vitamins, food supplements, and regular exercise, and they live in comfortable coops. Then, at five months of age, the life of luxury comes to a crashing halt, when the little racers are taken out to sea and set loose hundreds of kilometres from home.

That’s when the life of a racing pigeon gets exciting. Storms throw them off course, often diverting them to China or the Philippines. Thieves throw up nets to snare the little aviators and hold them for ransom. Dishonest owners set up multiple coops, confusing them, and hawks and other predators hunt them down. Airplanes take their toll as well: in 1998, a wayward pigeon brought down one of Taiwan’s US$50 million Mirage 2000 fighter jets. The Mirage crashed into the sea after a pigeon, and its metal leg band, were sucked into the engine. Both pilots survived, but the pigeon did not.

A handsome reward awaits the lucky winners. Battle-hardened birds that survive a single seven-week season never compete again. They become breeders, enjoying early retirement and the proverbial 72 virgins. Now that’s a sinecure: race seven times, and eat grain and breed for another 20 years, the average lifespan of a pigeon.

Yet only a fortunate few survive, let alone win. It takes four to seven hours to fly a 200-kilometre race, and some races stretch to 350km. Thousands of birds are released, and in bad weather, about half come back. Of 200,000 pigeons that begin training, just 200 tough racers remain at the end of a normal seven-race season. In one memorable sea race, only two bedraggled birds made it home: the now-immortal Xing Xing and Fu Xing. “The rest got lost, and flew away,” says Tsai. Flew where? “Maybe the Philippines, maybe China, I really don’t know,” he says.

The big money, the gambling, and a lack of regulation have caused many gangsters and crooks to become involved in pigeon racing in Taiwan. “There’s a lot of pressure,” says Tsai. “And I would say it’s getting worse.” Sometimes losers don’t pay. Sometimes racers cheat. And sometimes, bookies disappear with the money, although Tsai scoffs at a recent article that says NT$1 billion (US$30 million) was stolen at a recent race. “NT$100 million, maybe, but not a billion,” he says.

A pigeon owner watches his birds.

The Taipei Times described how pigeon napping works:

Yeh, who estimates the value of his own racing flock in hundreds of thousands of NT dollars, says owners sustain significant losses during the races.

"Three thousand birds started our recent fall meet," he says. "Only 20 or 30 returned at the end of the event."

Yeh says most of the dropouts lose their way along the route, but some are trapped by criminals eager to exact ransoms.

"Gangsters erect these huge nets in valleys and other places the birds have to cross. Then they call the owner and offer to return the bird for what seems like a pretty reasonable price -- about NT$3,000," he says.

With the rise of the sport, specialized services have developed, including hospitals:

With the growth of racing, well-maintained bird hospitals have spread across the country.

The oldest is Taipei's Versele-Laga, established in 1985 by its current director, Li Jaw-yang, a graduate of Taiwan National University.

Li says about half of his clinic's patients are pigeons, nearly all of which are racers.

"Some are suffering from parasites, the kind of malady that any bird is prone to," he says. "But by far the most frequent problem involves injuries they sustain while racing. It's a very difficult sport."

World pigeon racers consider Taiwan the ultimate pigeon race market. A pigeon racing consultant had this to say about his own dream:

What is the master plan? To compete and succeed in the most demanding pigeon races in the world, Taiwan!

Another large pigeon coop in a Kaohsiung suburb.

He also posted an article that discussed in detail how the gambling and prize money system works.....

The prize money comes from band sales and pooling. A club offers different denominations of bands for members to choose. They are the equivalent in USAdollars of $30, $60, $100, $150, and $300 apiece, respectively. A flyer can buy any combination of bands depending on his/her budget and the number of young birds that he/she will breed. Usually, it is required to purchase 12–15 bands and you can buy up to 60 bands. Some clubs do not set a limit on how many bands one can buy.

Assume that there are 100 members of a club, and each member buys 15 bands at an average of $150 a band. The band sales would be $225,000 ($150 x 100 x 15). Some readers may think that this figure is inflated. As a matter of fact, this figure is quite typical in any given race in Taiwan. Some big clubs have much larger band capital than the one I just mentioned above.

Now, let's talk about the pool money. Unlike in America, where flyers pool birds mostly on the shipping night, pigeon clubs in Taiwan, in addition to pooling the birds on the shipping night, also conduct two to three sessions of pooling three to four weeks before the race. The good thing about this is that the club can deposit this pooling money into the bank, accruing interest, which produces income for the club.

Traditionally, the club takes 4–5% of the total prize money and the interest income to run the club. These two incomes are sufficient to pay salaries for two full-time club employees, rents, utilities, etc. The bad news is that flyers are forced to commit a lot of money up front. If a pooled bird is lost before the race starts, the pooled money is lost.

The pooling system is quite complicated—too complicated to discuss it here. The pool money is usually three to four times more than the band sales capital. It is the so-called "Where's the Beef?" If you add the band sales and pool money, the total prize money is approaching one million dollars.

...and goes into great detail about how the races are handled and how the pigeons are raised and raced....

In terms of the racing system, Taiwan has developed a unique system in itself. All pigeons must pass three or four qualification races before being allowed to enter into real races. A qualification race is a race where birds must maintain a minimum speed of 600 to 800 yards per minute (ypm). You must ship the pigeons just like regular races, and clock the birds. If a pigeon does not clock minimum speed, this pigeon is out for the rest of the races regardless of how expensive this pigeon is banded. The distance of the qualification race is not all that great, ranging from 95–180 miles. But it runs three or four weeks in a row. It could be rough for young birds that are just two months old.

The real race is five successive weeks of racing, called the Five-Race Championship. A Five-Race Championship is equivalent to young birds or old birds season here in America, except each club in Taiwan runs an average of three series of Five-Race Championship races a year. The minimum speed of 800 ypm is imposed, and the club training on Wednesdays of 700 ypm is also required. In any of the races during the five weeks, if a bird does not maintain minimum speed, this bird is automatically disqualified for the rest of the contest.

For example, even a great young bird that has won four races and does not make minimum speed in the fifth race is disqualified. There is no mercy at all. The idea is to find out the toughest birds, which can endure this kind of brutal contest. Speed is desired, but consistency is more important.

The system is so lucrative and so highly developed that it has evolved from a hobby into a big business, and many clubs now lack the funds to compete. A demanding investment of time, money, and specialized knowledge, a pigeon coop is much more than a noisy, smelly addendum to so many structures around the island.

LINK: Taiwan's Pigeon Racing Union.


Tony Pace said...

What about heroin smuggling? MY wife informs me (in a somewhat breathless tone) that this is another widespread avenue of moneymaking from the birds.

Anonymous said...

That first photo reminds of Howl's Moving Castle.

Unknown said...

Okay! That's what those things are.
I asked someone and they said, houses for birds. I just thought that people liked to give birds homes and food. It seemed awfully large to me for anything like that.
Finally, you satisfy my curiosity. I've wondered over and over and over yet again about what those odd houses are. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

great story. I never knew pigeon racing was so popular here. I wonder if CKS started it so he'd have the means to send secret codes to his 'silent majority' in the mainland, signalling them to rise en masse the eve before he and his armies sailed to re-liberate China.

Boyd Jones said...

The way the Taiwanese handle birds, though, I am waiting and dreading bird flu outbreaks -- pigeon coops,
"free-range" chickens in the concrete jungle, the illegal bird shop down the block, etc.

Eric said...

Wow, nice story. I had no idea about pigeon racing in Taiwan. I wonder of all birds, why pigeons...

Unknown said...

Is there any pigeon club named klpr